How mapping Utah came to be — and what writing it taught me

In November 1989, I asked a remarkable woman to marry me.

That didn’t go well.

So I drank myself into a stupor deepened by self-pity and hacked away all night long at a Macintosh SE (Remember those? Two floppy drives?). In the morning, I had an evil headache, more questions about women than I could ever answer, and a 30-page short story.

Such was the sulking, ignoble, drunken genesis of mapping Utah.

That story lay dormant for half a decade, buried in a chaotic array of papers accumulated during study for my master’s degree. It emerged from hiding in 1994 during research for my doctorate. I’d just finished my course work and was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

As all doc students know, aptly timed and brilliantly executed procrastination is a requirement for a successful dissertation. So I procrastinated. (May my adviser, Trager, forgive me.) The short story beget a longer story, about 100 pages. That, too, slunk into hibernation among copies of mass communication research articles I never wanted to face again.

In 1998, the longer story crept unbidden out of a box I had not unpacked since arriving at St. Bonaventure University in 1996. Hmm, I thought. Beats grading the inept writing of freshmen. So, night after night, I wrote more.

Thus begat Lesson No. 1: Don’t over think it. I had written as far as Kara’s desperate flight on her mountain bike from a rest area just west of Green River. Noah had yet to appear in the sky above her unconscious body in his ultralight aircraft.

But I kept rewriting and editing this first third of the book. My logic: Have to get it just right. It had to be perfect before I could continue. My friend Greg Stene intervened: “Why?” he asked.

Greg knows me well. He pressed me: “Why haven’t you moved on to introducing these two people?” I admitted I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what Noah would or should say to Kara and what Kara would or should say to Noah.

“Denny,” Greg said, “You’ve thought about these people for years. Just put them together and get the hell out of their way.”

He was right. I did not write the last two-thirds of mapping Utah. Kara and Noah did.

Lesson No. 2: Details matter. My students past and present know I am dangerously obsessed with getting details right. After all, my favorite writer is John McPhee, the master of gathering detail and precisely calculating its use. I had to find words that made this novel feel, smell, taste, sound, and look like Utah. When words are a writer’s only tools, they have to be chosen thoughtfully. (As I’ve been quoted: Any good writer knows the search for the right word is a moral imperative.)

I’m trained as a geologist, and I’ve traveled through the American West extensively since the climbing-bum days of my youth. I put in seven years of serfdom as a grad student in the West. But to pull off a reasonable verisimilitude of Utah, northern Nevada, and south-central Oregon, I had to know much more. I gathered an array of research materials — I even found the invaluable Geologic Highway Map of Utah, produced in 1975 by Lehi F. Hintze of Brigham Young University. My master’s degree had taught me about public lands and natural resources issues throughout the West. But flowers? Birds? Trees, insects, reptiles, and mammals? Not so much. Hence the Audubon, National Geographic, and Peterson field guides.

I fretted. Still not enough detail. I had to know more. In the mid- to late 1990s, Google barely existed in beta form. I did not know it existed (most of us didn’t, nor did we have the computer horsepower to find it, let alone use it).

So, during in the summers of 1994 and 1998, I drove the roughly 1,000 miles between Portland, Oregon, and Green River, Utah, four times with a mini-cassette recorder in my hand. I recorded nearly 1,500 observations about what I saw, what I experienced, what I thought about, and what Kara might have seen, experienced, and thought. I spent many, many hours transcribing those notes.

So many details in this novel stem from that 4,000 miles of driving and paying attention. Elevations of passes. Identification of flora and fauna. Distances. Names of indistinct dirt roads. Remote stop signs peppered by gunfire. Unusual or interesting people. And so much more.

Google, back then, would not have told me about what I saw. (But in late 2013, during final editing, Google became my best friend for fact-checking.)

Lesson No. 3: Let people read drafts. At various points over the past 15 years, I’ve sent drafts to friends. Some liked what I’d written; some didn’t. All had comments that, over time, improved subsequent drafts.

In the summer of 2000, I sent query letters with sample chapters to 70 literary agents. Of those, 69 disdainfully answered, “I’m sorry. Your manuscript does not fit our present needs.” (Yeah. I’m still a little bitter.)

(Now, if you have been or are one of my students, prepare to laugh. I mean really laugh.)

One agent wrote to me at length. I’d sent her a manuscript of 145,000 words. She replied, “The writing is wonderful, and the story is terrific. But it’s too long, and that’s because you are so wordy.” (Okay, cue the laughter.) She included four pages and showed how I could cut out clutter. My pervasive wordiness stunned me. I was embarrassed.

After several months of licking my literary wounds (how dare anyone criticize my precious prose as overwrought and wordy — harrumph, harrumph), I set to work, red pen in hand. I cut 7,000 words immediately by axing a scene that was a redundant expression of an aspect of Kara’s personality.

I whacked away at the clutter — from 138,000 to 97,000 words — the old-fashioned, still-valued way. I cut one word at a time. It’s a trick, a gimmick, a device I now use on students writing longer pieces. I went through the 400-plus pages and tried to take one word out of each sentence. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well (which I reread every New Year’s Day), wrote: Clutter is the disease of American writing.

I had been seriously infected by that disease. Because one person took the time to read the manuscript and comment, you will not read 48,000 words more than necessary to tell the story of Kara McAllister and Noah Hartshorn.

Lesson No. 4: Massive accumulation of detail is meaningless without the ability to manage it. I thought I’d learned this while writing both a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation. Given the environmental theme that pervades mapping Utah, I had far more material to consider and utilize than I did in either academic tome. I gathered so many books, pamphlets, maps, guides, and eclectica for this project. My hard drive still holds nearly 400 folders and files of research notes and early chapters (including many written with a long-dead word processor called WriteNow, which I loved dearly).

Details matter. That’s what reading John McPhee taught me. Love details. Gather many. But learn to manage them. Writing a long, comprehensive project is far more about management of material than creativity of mind.

Over time, however, mapping Utah just gathered digital dust. I’d open the file every few years and update the technology that Noah and Kara use. Aside from that, nothing much changed. I’d demonstrated I could write a novel. But I had (still have) a day job I like very much.

Enter Dr. Richard Simpson of my university’s English department. He and I and another friend gather for breakfast every few months. At one repast, Rick explained his dissatisfaction with a draft of a novel he’d been asked to review. After listening to his critique, I blurted, “Sure glad you didn’t read mine.”

“You wrote a novel?” Rick asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“I want to read it,” Rick demanded.

“I’ll send it to you,” I said. Which I didn’t. So he pestered me from spring into summer. Finally, I shipped the manuscript to him. And promptly forgot about it.

A month later, an email from Rick arrived in my inbox. I read it and damn near fainted. An excerpt:

The characters are marvelous. You attempt one of the most difficult feats of all for the male novelist, screenwriter, dramatist, or poet, namely the portrayal from the inside of a complex, flawed, mature, maturing woman. In fact, my sense is that the story has dual protagonists, Noah as important as Kara. The portrayals of both are striking and memorable. And many fine minor characters show up — TD, Doc, Annie, Nash, the sheriff, Petey, Nash’s pals, Bill McCorrigan. I found myself caring about these people quickly and deeply. I turned pages rapidly. I thought about the story when I wasn’t reading. I wanted to get back to the book when I was elsewhere.

Hence Lesson No. 5: Accept help. If you write, surely you want to be read. Ask people to read it. Every reader will teach you something about your manuscript. You do want to improve it, don’t you?

But … after making changes using Rick’s suggestions, I once again parked the manuscript on a digital shelf. There it would still be were it not for a former student of mine.

I had begun writing another novel. After 70,000 words, I realized 1) I didn’t know how to end it and 2) I feared I had not sufficiently developed a thread that would bind the narrative from beginning to … well, whatever end I might eventually craft.

So I sent this new manuscript to my former student, who had read a draft of mapping Utah years earlier. I asked her to vet this new work, temporarily titled A Laywoman’s Guide to Organ Repair (because I can’t think of a more catchy, SEO-friendly title).

Kelly Zientek-Baker, who took several journalism courses from me as an undergrad, sent me her 10 cents’ worth (actually, her critique of this new work was invaluable) in an email.

But her email contained a sentence that deeply moved me. Without that sentence, mapping Utah remains a collection of ones and zeroes on my hard drive.

She asked what had become of mapping Utah. Then she wrote: “I believe in that book.” She asked, almost apologetically, if I would mind if she undertook publishing it digitally.

Kelly rigorously edited mapping Utah conceptually and line by line. She made this a better read. She enlisted another former student of mine, Holly McIntyre Hartigan, to design the cover. Kelly designed the book. She dealt with all aspects of CreateSpace at Amazon. She crafted the e-book editions for Kindle and Nook and the like.

Kelly is now a literary agent of the digital variety. As a writer, you are not always alone. If a friend offers to help, accept gladly and gratefully.

Kelly, Holly, and I only needed a few months to push this novel into publication. I am beyond grateful to both of them.

So, you ask, is my novel, mapping Utah, any good? Is it worth a few bucks?

Ask Dr. Rick Simpson. From his email to me:

You’ve taken a massive, daunting subject — what I’ll once more call the intersection of soul and geography in the American West — and given it massively intelligent, informed, perceptive, humane, moving treatment. You obviously know the landscape in broad scope and microscopic detail, from multiple angles and perspectives — the geographic, topographic, cartographic, geological, botanical, aeronautic, economic, emotional, intellectual, personal. You deliver substantial, provocative, illuminating material in all of these areas. The book greatly enriches a reader.

Unleash your credit card. Buy mapping Utah and decide for yourself whether it enriches you.


One comment on “How mapping Utah came to be — and what writing it taught me

  1. Lee Coppola, friend and former boss says:

    I’m sure I’m not the only one to be glad Denny was nudged into publishing mapping Utah. The literary world is elevated by his work.

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